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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #69

January 2010

Robert Poole
January 1, 2010

In this issue:

Controller Fatigue Still on the Back Burner

The disparity with which the FAA is treating pilot fatigue and controller fatigue is dismaying, since the same issues arise in both. Pilots and controllers both work demanding schedules that interrupt the body’s circadian rhythms and lead to accumulated sleep deficits that degrade on-duty alertness and judgment, especially during evening and midnight shifts. Our national air safety regulator, the FAA, has a major effort under way to revamp the rules governing pilot flight and duty-time rules—but is doing nothing comparable about controller fatigue and its relationship to working conditions and shift scheduling.

It’s not as if the National Transportation Safety Board has ignored controller fatigue as a factor in aviation accidents. It cited controller fatigue as a contributing factor in a near-collision at LAX in 2004, in which the relief controller (who mistakenly cleared an Asiana 747 to land on a runway where he’d cleared a Southwest 737 to take off) had had only 5-6 hours of sleep in the 8-hour rest period between shifts. And in the 2007 Lexington, KY crash of a Comair regional jet that mistakenly took off from a taxiway, the NTSB found that the lone controller on duty had had only one hour of sleep during the previous 30 hours during which he’d worked two shifts. NTSB recommended that in addition to the FAA developing a fatigue awareness training program for controllers, it should work with the controllers union to revise work-scheduling policies—but that has not happened.

I’m still convinced, as I’ve written here previously, that the FAA applies different standards to those it regulates at arm’s-length (airlines, pilots, airframe manufacturers, etc.) and those it nominally regulates in-house (controllers and managers of its Air Traffic Organization). Here’s another piece of evidence for this hypothesis. After Northwest flight 188 failed to maintain contact with ATC and overflew its Minneapolis/St. Paul destination last October, the FAA immediately suspended the licenses of the cockpit crew. It took no action against any of the ATC workforce on duty that night, even though (1) it took controllers more than 30 minutes to notice that they’d lost contact with NW188, and (2) it took supervisors another 30 minutes to alert FAA managers and notify NORAD about the situation. Controllers are supposed to notify NORAD within 10 minutes of losing contact with a flight, not 60 minutes later. To be sure, Administrator Randy Babbitt promised better training programs to avoid a repeat of such incidents—but notice the difference in how the pilots were treated, compared with controllers and supervisors.

By contrast, when the provision of ATC services is organizationally separate from air safety regulation, arm’s-length regulation is more likely. The issue of controller fatigue came up in Canada in 2001, fairly early in the life of Nav Canada (which was commercialized and put at arm’s-length from safety regulator Transport Canada in 1996). To address the problem, a Tripartite Working Group was created, with representatives from Transport Canada, Nav Canada, and controllers union CATCA. Its report recommended numerous changes to scheduling practices, most of which were adopted.
(Note: Nav Canada tells me that the “Report to the Tripartite Steering Committee on ATC Fatigue,” September 2001 (TP13742E), used to be posted on the Transport Canada website, but is no longer there.)

One of the most important ATC reforms Congress could make would be to organizationally separate air safety regulation from the provision of ATC services. That would make the ATO a separate modal agency within the U.S. DOT, regulated at arm’s length by the FAA, which would then be able to focus more consistently on ensuring the safety of U.S. aviation. This change would be in accord with the policy of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)—and with current practice in just about every developed country.

Cutting Delays via Required Time of Arrival (RTA)


The following is a guest article by long-time airline pilot R. Michael Baiada, president of ATH Group, Evergreen, CO.

What is the primary reason for today’s airline delays? Of course more runways, reduced schedule peaking, and improved ATC procedures would help, but a prime reason for delays is that we don't use the runways we have now efficiently.
 
Many people believe that whenever a queue forms, the airport must need more concrete.  But, speaking as an airline pilot for over 30 years, there is no airport that I have ever flown into where there is an arrival queue all day long (from 6 AM to 10 PM). There are numerous times every day when there is over-delivery (queuing), as well as under-delivery (too few airplanes to fill capacity), even at the busiest airports. 
 
Further, even more than the schedule, the arrival of a large group of aircraft is driven by hundreds of real-time, independent decisions that create huge amounts of variance in the flow.  Sure, you know that there will be a large group of aircraft arriving around, say 5 PM at ORD.  But whether it is 4:45 PM or 5:15 PM, whether it is nicely spaced or bunched tightly, whether like-size aircraft are grouped together or interlaced (creating wake vortex problems) is different each and every day.
 
For example, at Frankfurt, even though they can land upwards of 50/hour, the schedule is limited to 42 aircraft per hour.  But beyond that, Eurocontrol controls departure times daily to match the 42/hour rate (i.e., a full-time ground delay program). Yet, many times I still have to fly an unplanned 20 n-mi (and even sometimes a 30 n-mi) final approach, for spacing reasons.
 
More runways and managing delay can mask the inefficiency, but won’t fundamentally resolve it.  Most current and proposed solutions are about making the delay more efficient, not removing it.
 
For example, when 10 aircraft are all scheduled to land at 8 AM at an airport that can land 60 aircraft per hour, they will actually land from 8 AM to 8:09 AM, assuming perfect spacing at the threshold.  But rarely is there perfect spacing, especially as the arrival group grows in size and the controllers become overloaded. Thus, most people believe that the only way these aircraft can all land on time is for the schedule to be reduced--or to build more runways. 
 
The current “advanced” thinking on the solution is to move as close as possible to perfection in keeping track of planes (via NextGen technologies), and then reduce the separation so that the aircraft can land every 45 seconds, i.e., all 10 aircraft on the ground by 8:07 AM.  But if they are all scheduled at 8 AM, nine of them are still late (just less late).
 
But in fact there is another solution that allows all of the 10 aircraft to land “on time” - manage the flow so the first aircraft lands at 7:51 AM, or, depending on the arrival buffer necessary, say 7:48 AM.  In today's system, the excess capacity ahead of arrival queue is wasted, since the flow is not managed in real time (except if the queuing becomes very large, and even then, it is about more “efficient delay” with a very broad brush).  In other words, there is runway capacity available, but it is forward in time.
 
Most people don't consider or realize the power of pulling the front of the queue forward.  For example, pulling just two aircraft forward off the front end of a tightly packed arrival queue of 32 aircraft removes upwards of 60 minutes of delay and flight time as the entire queue moves forward. And that is just one arrival group!
 
But to accomplish this efficiently, decisions must be made one to two hours prior to landing, which is something that only the airlines can manage and control effectively, since they must take into account connections, gate availability, crew legality, maintenance, etc.
 
Therefore, if the airlines begin to manage the flow from a business perspective, something they have the freedom to do today, the arrival flow becomes much more orderly and better matched to current capacity, which, in turn, reduces the variance of the aircraft arrival flow. The ATC system would be less overloaded, and aircraft could be landed closer to the airport's actual capacity, with less need for a queue in the air (longer downwind and final, etc.). In turn, ATC could remove departure/arrival structure and cost and begin to peel back the onion of “just in case” structure, vectoring and spacing.
 
Less delay and chaos means that aircraft will arrive closer to their scheduled arrival time.  As the bell-shaped curve of arrival times narrows, airlines could lower their planned block times and increase connections through the hub, since more and more customers would be delivered closer to scheduled arrival. As block time goes down, asset utilization increases and defects decrease, causing costs to go down significantly. 
 
With airlines controlling their aircraft from a business perspective, the ATC system would run smoother, since with the arrival queues pulled forward in an orderly manner, all of the available runway capacity would be used. The airlines would deliver a higher-quality product produced at lower cost, and the ATC system would be less complex.  Higher quality increases pricing power, thus increasing revenues. Lower costs increases competitive options.
 
Finally, as the airlines and the ATC system move to a time-based, required time of arrival (RTA) sequenced flow, safety would also increase based on a much less random, much more orderly aircraft flow. Using NextGen technologies in this way would produce meaningful airline benefits—lower costs and increased revenues.
 
In sum, it is not the peaked schedules, lack of runways, ATC system limitations, or too little technology that drives up costs, decreases utilization, and limits revenues. It is random, independent airline operations, especially as this relates to the movement of the aircraft. This represents a relatively simple and solvable logistics problem. It’s a logistics problem that ATH Group’s Attila Arrival Management System has been working to solve for Delta in Atlanta since 2006.
--R. Michael Baiada

Wind Turbines and Air Traffic Control


Wind power is being promoted by governments in the United States and Europe as a renewable energy source. Aside from the predictable NIMBY objections to these large structures, it turns out there is a serious problem of interference with air traffic control radars, especially primary radars. While secondary radars may get replaced in coming decades as multilateration and ADS-B are phased in, it seems likely that primary radars will be with us for much longer, in part for national security surveillance reasons.

The basic problem is that the turbine’s large rotating metal blades create a Doppler return on ATC radar screens—a false target. Both air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and defense agencies are therefore sponsoring research into what can be done about the problem. Several years ago, the FAA contracted with the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences to assess the problem in the U.S. context. Its report concluded that because so many factors may be unique to each situation, it is not feasible to develop universally applicable guidelines for siting wind turbines near radars. But it did conclude that a methodology for assessing potential interference is possible.

Two producers of ATC equipment, Raytheon Canada and BAE Systems Insyte, have done work on this problem in Great Britain. In 2007, BAE carried out a demonstration program funded partly by the Royal Air Force to test a plot-and-track filtering processor to remove the wind farm signature from what is displayed on the scope fed by a primary radar. The May 2008 report on the tests showed that the technique removed unwanted radar returns from the wind farm while enabling aircraft to be tracked successfully in airspace near the wind turbines.

Raytheon Canada has been working on the problem with NATS, the U.K. ANSP, since 2005, and in December 2009 received a new $6.5 million contract for software modeling and field trials to develop and test mitigation algorithms for both S-band approach radars and L-band en-route primary radars. Tests will be carried out in both the U.K. and the Netherlands.

In addition, Eurocontrol has developed draft guidelines for ANSPs, in consultation with  civilian and military surveillance system providers as well as from ANSPs in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States. It defines four zones around ATC radars, ranging from the closest (wind turbines prohibited) to the furthest out (no restrictions). Consultations on the guidelines are due to wrap up at the end of January.

Progress Despite Labor Turmoil in Australia


Airservices Australia was split off from the country’s Civil Aviation Authority in 1995 and made into a self-supporting ANSP, regulated by the renamed Civil Aviation Safety Authority. Among its early accomplishments were the implementation of a new ATC software system (TAAATS) including electronic flight strips, consolidation of flight information regions, and consolidation of facilities, with two state-of-the-art en-route centers replacing four older ones. It was also one of the first ANSPs to implement reduced vertical spacing minimums (RVSM) over both continental and oceanic airspace. As I’ve reported here from time to time, Airservices has also been a pioneer in developing RNP arrivals at Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, as well as user-preferred routings (known as flex-tracks) to allow flights to take advantage of favorable winds. As Clint Oster and John Strong report in their 2007 book, Managing the Skies, “Overall, Airservices Australia has delivered significant technology benefits to airlines.”

This transformation from a government bureaucracy to a user-responsive corporation has not been painless, however. During the period from November 2007 to May 2009 Airservices’ customers experienced “service interruptions” in individual sectors from 5 to 20 times per month, sometimes lasting for a full day. These interruptions were caused by controller “sick-outs” during very contentious labor negotiations over a new contract. When too few controllers were available to maintain normal service in a sector, Airservices had to resort to procedural control, which meant increased spacing and delays. Airlines sometimes asked for their money back, contending that they were not receiving the services their user fees were supposedly paying for.

A long interview article with CEO Greg Russell in the December 2009 issue of Australian Aviation provides some perspective on what went wrong. While conceding that the sickouts did, indeed cause staffing shortfalls, Russell links the cause to an antiquated airspace and organizational structure. There were 32 sector groups, divided not by traffic but by state boundaries and geographic features, and 144 different endorsements. “I can have a room full of people, but without the right person in the right sector with the right endorsement at the moment . . . the system is dreadfully vulnerable,” explained Russell. This has now been replaced with a centralized rostering body based in Canberra, with new software to allocate controllers to where they are needed. Airspace has been reconfigured into three areas: heavy-traffic east coast services, lower-traffic regional services, and upper airspace services for long-haul, high-capacity flights. In addition, the new contract gives the company better control over abusive sick-leave-taking.

Russell concedes that there is still much work to do in restoring employee morale. Two keys to that, which Airservices is working on, are better facilities and equipment and better career development. Although the two relatively new en-route centers are state of the art, many of the towers are obsolete—and a replacement program is under way. All towers will be equipped with a tower technology package, which Sensis has adapted from Nav Canada’s Extended Computer Display System (EXCDS). In the interview Russell was not very specific about career development, but argued that “You’ve got to give people interesting work to do. This organization in the past has been reasonably good in giving our technical people great experiences all around the country and overseas. I think we need to focus very definitely on giving that kind of experience to our air traffic control group.”

Assuming it can get the labor equation right, Airservices looks well-placed to be a role model for Europe and the United States in terms of implementing next-generation air traffic management. An article in Air Traffic Technology International 2010 cites continued progress in:

The obvious goal is “eventual abandonment of existing airway route structures, established tracks, and designated waypoints and replacing them with a system that has aircraft arriving and departing along seemingly random tracks and climb/descent profiles.” And that, of course, will change the role of controller to one of traffic manager, working with automation to detect and resolve trajectory conflicts. So the pieces will all fit together, including the labor one.

LORAN Decision Ignores GPS Backup Need

Early this month, with the apparent blessing of its parent agency (the Department of Homeland Security), the Coast Guard announced that it will stop transmitting LORAN navigation signals as of February 8th. What little news coverage there was focused only on the legacy LORAN-C system, which nearly everyone agrees is obsolescent. What those stories ignored is a series of recommendations that a successor technology, eLORAN, is the most cost-effective backup system for GPS. And since GPS is a core enabling technology for NextGen, the continued lack of a backup system should be of concern to everyone counting on successful implementation of NextGen.

Back in February 2008, the DHS issued a policy statement that eLORAN was going to be the GPS backup system. That decision was based on considerable research, including the unanimous report of the Independent Assessment Team that studied the question for DHS and DOD in 2007. I’ve heard critiques of this decision from some aviation people, pointing out other possible backup systems for aviation-related GPS users. While that may be the case for aviation, the IAT looked at all uses of GPS, including military, agriculture, recreation, terrestrial vehicle navigation, etc. On that basis, eLORAN was considered by far the most cost-effective choice.

Last year’s DHS appropriations bill allowed the Coast Guard to terminate LORAN signals only if DHS certified that it is not needed as the GPS backup. Has DHS made that certification?  If so, what are they proposing as the GPS backup? And if they have not, on what basis is the Coast Guard going forward?

Ironically, in its announcement of the policy decision, the Coast Guard urged maritime users of LORAN to switch to GPS for navigation.

News Notes

More Flight Service Station Consolidations

Five years ago the FAA outsourced the ailing Flight Service Station program to Lockheed Martin. Two key goals were to upgrade the technology from its 1960s vintage and to consolidate facilities, as various automation tools made it possible to provide flight-plan filing and weather briefings in a more centralized manner, with a smaller headcount, thereby reducing the cost of this program. As of February 1, 2010, the company will close seven more facilities (in Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Tennessee, and Washington). Despite complaints from some pilots, the company’s latest report to the FAA FSS Program Office shows they are meeting or exceeding all 20 customer service performance metrics. After this next round of consolidation, head count will have been reduced from around 2,000 to just over 600.

NOTAMs: Digital Replacing Paper
In November the FAA announced that it will be replacing paper versions of its Notices to Airman (NOTAMs) with digital-only notifications, with initial digital distributions beginning in January at facilities in California, Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, and Texas. Digital NOTAMs are expected to reduce human error, allow more timely and accurate information dissemination, standardize content and procedures, and balance diverse customer needs, according to the FAA.

South African ANSP Takes Top Award
The African Airlines Association gave its award tor Air Navigation Service Provider of the Year to ATNS, the South African ANSP, in recognition of its “outstanding, efficient, and exemplary provision of airline navigational services to the African airline industry.” The award was presented at the 41st Annual General Assembly of the African Airlines Association, in November 2009.

UK to Reduce Stake in NATS?
Several British media outlets in December reported that the UK government is planning to reduce its ownership stake in NATS, the country’s commercialized ANSP. Since NATS was commercialized in 2001, the government has owned 48.9% of the company, with the Airlines Group (of UK airlines) owning 41.9%, airports operator BAA owning 4.2%, and NATS staff the remaining 5%. The government also holds a “golden share” giving it voting control over certain sensitive matters.

Poole’s ATC Ideas in Forbes’ New Book

Forbes magazine editor-in-chief Steve Forbes has published a new book (with Elizabeth Ames) called How Capitalism will Save Us. The chapter on regulation and deregulation includes a page discussing some of my ideas on airport policy and ATC reform.

Finland’s ANSP Corporatized

Finavia, which owns and operates 25 airports as well as being the ANSP for Finland, has been corporatized—i.e., incorporated as a company under Finnish law, 100% owned by the government. In 2006, the former Civil Aviation Administration was separated into its safety regulatory portion (which became the Civil Aviation Authority) and Finavia (the infrastructure owner/operator). Corporatization of Finavia completes the transition.

Correction to Last Issue
In Issue No. 68 I reported on the first conference of Caribbean ANSPs, organized by the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO). I incorrectly stated that CANSO had no Caribbean members, when it turns out that NAATC of the Netherlands Antilles is, in fact, a member and was the host organization for the conference, held in Curacao. My apologies to CANSO and NAATC.

Quotable Quotes


“I doubt there is anyone with an in-depth knowledge of aviation that does not believe our 20th century air traffic control system is broken and badly needs replacement. Our system contributes to congestion, costs too much, drives excess fuel use and unnecessary emissions, and limits growth. It needs fixing, but because financing, development, and implementation are heavily impacted by politics, it’s getting fixed far too slowly and inefficiently. Unfortunately-- because the airlines and the general aviation community have been unable to agree on how the ATC system should be financed, because Congress has been unwilling to give up control of such minutia as where FAA facilities are located, and because the union representing air traffic controllers would rather negotiate with Congress than with a professionally run business—the U.S. is virtually alone among advanced countries in not having created a fee-financed, commercialized, professionally run air navigation service provider.”
--Robert L. Crandall, former chairman, American Airlines, National Journal transportation blog, Nov. 30, 2009.

[Airways New Zealand CEO Ashley Smout] reckons there are two main reasons ANSPs are slow to change. The biggest problem for many is the way they are structured and funded. Those dependent purely on government for funding find it more difficult to access the finance required for change and to invest in new technologies. They are reliant on the health of their government’s own resources and the sentiment of civil servants and politicians toward the industry and air travel. This is in contrast to ANSPs that have been privatized/corporatized by their governments and operate on a purely commercial model. . . . Interestingly enough, it is these commercial ANSPs that are all reckoned to be at the cutting edge of air traffic management technology. Although structured differently, where there is a clear business case for change, accessing the necessary monies is rarely a problem.”
--Wyn Jenkins, “Time for the Next Leap Forward,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 1, 2009.


Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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